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Analysis of 2,000 French newspapers reveals criticism of Third Republic

‘Politicians act only in their own interests. The common man does not interest them at all.’ And, ‘The debate in parliament was a sorry sight and demonstrated incompetence.’ These are two pieces of criticism that you might read in tomorrow’s newspaper. But they were actually in the papers at the time of the first parliamentary democracy in Western Europe.

PhD candidate John-Alexander Janssen read the editorials of around 2,000 editions of two French newspapers in the hunt for a critical political note. His research period: The Third French Republic (1870-1940). This came about during a disastrous war for France (and Emperor Napoleon III) against Prussia.

John-Alexander Janssen

That there would be criticism of the new democratic institutions, for instance from monarchist ranks, was to be expected. ‘In the initial phase of the Third Republic in particular, the republicans were in the minority, and even after they still struggled with serious opposition in the Senate and National Assembly. The republican state system was nascent and the balance fragile. You therefore wouldn’t have expected there to be strong criticism from the republican camp (principled supporters of democracy) but there was,’ says Janssen.

Two political crises

To understand this criticism, Janssen analysed the editorials in the newspapers Le Petit Journal, comparable with a tabloid today, and Le Temps, a paper that could count on an elite, republican readership. Janssen looked specifically at two big crises in the Third Republic: Boulangism and the Panama Scandal. ‘If people are doing well financially, they have little to moan about. I deliberately sought tensions because that is when they vent their opinion of politics.’

‘During the Panama Scandal the criticism in Le Petit Journal became xenophobic and antisemitic even’

Although the newspapers agreed that the constitution should remain largely unchanged, criticism of politics in practice varied widely. Le Petit Journal, for example, repeatedly concluded that French politicians were only in it for themselves and that the Frenchman on the street did not count: populist rhetoric.

‘The nation’s gold’

‘During the Panama Scandal the criticism in Le Petit Journal became xenophobic and antisemitic even. Three intermediaries of Jew descent were involved in that major corruption scandal – alongside a group of republican politicians. Then the paper said: “France is being plundered by people with no roots here, who could live anywhere and are only out for our gold.” The criticism in Le Temps was more moderate and it was often about how the French political institutions lacked the maturity of those in the United Kingdom.’

‘A lot of criticism is essentially the same: for instance that politicians are careerists’

Is Janssen looking in his research for parallels with our own democracy and the criticism of it? ‘We are obviously around 130 years further and now have many more opportunities to mount opposition as citizens. But a lot of criticism is essentially the same: for instance that politicians are careerists who don’t think of the public interest; opportunists who are there for the benefit of themselves and their clique. This criticism, as this research has once again shown, is inextricably linked with representative democracy.’

Teacher and author

Janssen’s PhD research took over ten years. In that time he was also a history teacher and in recent years has written several novels. He is currently working on a non-fiction work about general Georges Boulanger. Janssen almost gave up his research several times. ‘But it ended up being well worth the effort. Although I do think that I may have spent a disproportional amount of time telling my former pupils about France.’

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